The President: Now, Time to Dig Out

Two days after his re-election victory, President Bush mapped out a strategy for 2005 to reporters in a White House auditorium. "I earned capital in the campaign, political capital," he said, "and now I intend to spend it." His goals: Social Security, tax reform, the economy, education and the war on terror. Yet markets can go down as well as up, and Bush lost his first two bets to tough GOP opposition. High gas prices hurt him. And the war in Iraq cost him his shirt. According to Gallup, Bush's approval ratings on Iraq fell from 47 points after his re-election to 32 in September. By the year-end, Bush's numbers revived to 39 points--but even that upswing might stall, given the disclosure that Bush authorized spying on U.S. citizens after 9/11 and the Senate's wrangling over renewal of the Patriot Act.

The domestic politics of Iraq is no sideshow for the White House. Bush's aides believe the mission depends as much on U.S. political support as on events in Iraq. By the fall, "things were coming together in Iraq right at the time when things in Washington were falling apart," said one senior Bush aide, declining to be named when talking about internal strategy. Bush's advisers planned to refocus the debate on Iraq's future but were frustrated by events: Katrina, the Supreme Court, the CIA leak investigation. Most worrisome: falling GOP confidence in the administration. At a June lunch, GOP senators told Bush to spell out a clearer strategy in Iraq. In November, he got the same message from 18 House Republicans during a meeting in the White House residence. Bush's recent Iraq speeches--with a franker appraisal of life in Iraq and the scale of the task ahead--were an attempt to bridge the gap with his own party as well as with voters in general. The strategy may be working on Capitol Hill, but the audience beyond the Beltway is harder to manage. And what they see on their TVs is bombings and casualty counts. Bush's challenge for 2006 is to win not just the ground war in Iraq but the battle of the airwaves at home.